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By special request, Debbie Garcia-Bengochea and her husband, Jorge, will be taking their miniature therapy horses on the road to Newtown, Conn. to help the families who lost loved ones in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.

HIGH SPRINGS – While church groups and canine therapy organizations are traveling to Newtown, Conn. on their own to offer assistance to the community coping with the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings, personal requests have been made directly from affected family members, public officials, municipal organizations and citizen groups to bring Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses to Newtown to work directly with those most directly affected by the massacre.

As one Newtown parent told Gentle Carousel, “We want our kids to dream of minis, instead of monsters.”

“How do you say no to that?” said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea who, with her husband Jorge, founded the all-volunteer nonprofit charity, located in High Springs and Alachua, in 2002. Presently, the organization has 32 tiny therapy horses, each one of which has two volunteers working with them. The therapy teams work with over 18,000 local adults and children each year in hospitals, hospice programs, assisted living programs, schools and libraries to bring their special love where it is needed most.

“Normally, we would be winding down somewhat after the holidays,” said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, “but we were contacted by organizations and families in Newtown, so we’re preparing to go to Connecticut just after Christmas instead. It’s the kind of call you can’t say no to,” she said.

“We are scrambling to put money and everything else together,” she added. “Expenses have to be covered and arrangements have to be made. We’re not sure how we’re going to do it, but we could not turn down such earnest requests,” she said.

Families, organizations and first responders are “guiding us through,” explained Garcia-Bengochea. “Everyone is talking about it up there. I guess a lot of people are aware of our horses through Facebook,” she said. “They [people of Newtown] have been fundraising, setting up itineraries, scheduling private times with families, children and first responders and setting up other “pretty major things” that Garcia-Bengochea says she is not free to discuss at this time.

“I think the private things we will be doing with individuals will be the most helpful,” she said, but “Gentle Carousel Horses will be available to do whatever the community identifies as a need.”

Although the trip was not planned and the request only came in on Dec. 19, 2012, “just at a time when we were winding things down for the year,” some things seem to be falling into place so far. Several youngsters have been doing fundraising. A small school in Brazil put their money together and sent it to them to help defray costs. One child sent $1, explaining that it was her “hole” allowance. School children from Australia also sent a donation to help. “There has been an outreach from all over to help get us there,” said Garcia-Bengochea.

People are doing whatever they can to help. A group of volunteers from Maryland with a heated horse ambulance will be meeting Gentle Carousel in Newtown so the Florida horses will stay warm. A Newtown horse farm will have stalls and pastures for the horses to relax in after work. A horse transportation company is helping get the minis part way to Connecticut.

Magic, the most well-known of the Gentle Carousel Horses, was selected by AARP’s magazine as The Most Heroic Pet in America, and will be among the horses traveling to Connecticut. “Our horses have been featured in all kinds of magazines,” said Garcia-Bengochea. Magic was also selected by TIME Magazine / CNN as one of History’s Ten Most Heroic Animals (the only living animal on the list), as well as Reader’s Digest / Americantowns’ Power of One Hero (the only non-human Power of One Hero) and was one of Newsweek / The Daily Beast’s Ten Most Heroic Animals in America of 2010.

“Hugh Jackman even talked about our horses on Broadway,” said Garcia-Bengochea. “He was very gracious,” she said, and even invited her husband, Jorge, on stage to dance.

“Aladdin, our all white horse, will be going as well,” she said. Others are still being determined, but a total of four horses, including Magic and Aladdin, six volunteers plus Jorge and Debbie Garcia-Bengochea are expected to make the trip.

While the couple and their volunteers are clearly moved by the request, there are still a lot of details that need to be worked out. “We will be staying until well after school starts up again,” said Garcia-Bengochea. “We are usually running in the red,” she said. “We’re somewhat used to that. But this trip will be especially costly.”

The Gentle Carousel program is dependent on donations to help accomplish all the visits made by the organization each year and this visit is no exception. Although donations are coming in, more is needed.

Anyone wishing to donate directly to Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses for the trip to Newtown, Conn. may do so through their donation link at www.facebook.com/TherapyHorses or their website at www.Horse-Therapy.org.

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GAINESVILLE – It may be welcome news for many that the Alachua County Tax Collector will soon be taking over driver license services in the area. Tax Collector Von Fraser recently announced the plans in advance of the staged takeover, which is slated to begin in late January.

Driver license services in Alachua County are currently handled by the Florida Department of Highway Safety Motor Vehicles (DHSMV).

The migration of services comes following a bill passed in the 2011 Florida legislative session in which lawmakers mandated local tax collectors take over the driver license and identification card services no later than June 30, 2015. Tax collectors in several surrounding counties have been handling driver license services, and they’re among more than 50 tax collector offices statewide that are doing the same, according to John Power, Chief Deputy Tax Collector for Alachua County.

Tax Collector Von Fraser said the State has been talking to his office about assuming the driver license services for about a decade, but he has been reluctant to take it on until now. Both Fraser and Power said they want to get ahead of the curve by transitioning well before the state mandated deadline.

Driver license services, currently administered by the DHSMV, has been a source of frustration for many in Alachua County who find wait times, multiple trips and an under-sized facility to be cumbersome and inefficient.

Power said he is hoping the change of service will ease those frustrations and lead to more efficient services.

Fraser agrees saying, “We always emphasize to our employees how important customer service is, because that’s what our office is all about.”

Perhaps more to the point of alleviating frustrations with driver license services will be the multiple locations provided by the tax collector. With just one location at 5830 NW 34th Street in Gainesville, the DHSMV office is often packed with local residents looking to take driving tests and renew their licenses.

Meanwhile, the Tax Collector has three locations, one in downtown Gainesville, another across from the current DHSMV office on NW 34th Street and a third in Butler Plaza on Archer Road in Gainesville.

“Our goal is that the service is improved, and we’re really expecting to change the delivery of service so that they can get in and out quicker,” said Power, adding, “We hope that bringing these services on will help in making us a one-stop shop for many governmental services including hunting and fishing licenses, driver’s licenses, property taxes, motor vehicle tags and more.”

During the first stage of the service migration, the downtown office will begin offering the driver license services. The DHSMV will cease operations at its driver license office on March 8 while the Tax Collector plans to launch those same services at its NW 34th Street location on Monday, March 11. By early May 2013, Power said driver license services should be offered at the Butler Plaza site as well.

The Alachua County Tax Collector’s office will absorb the 11 employees currently working for the DHSMV driver license bureau in Gainesville.

“We not only want those employees, but we really do need their expertise and knowledge as we embark on this transition,” said Power.

He also noted that while his office will assume responsibility for the DHSMV 34th Street location, it doesn’t have a specific use for the building itself. However, the outdoor driving course used to test potential drivers, will still be used for those purposes. Other driver license services, like written, hearing and vision tests will be available at all three Tax Collector locations.

“We want to provide the best service possible to all of our customers and we will be certain to notify anyone needing to take a driving test on the outdoor road course that those will be done at that same location and by appointment,” Power said.”

As for how the costs to take over the services are to be covered, the Florida legislator passed another measure in 2011 requiring that tax collectors assess a $6.25 fee on all driver licenses and identification cards it issues. But, it seems those fees may not cover the cost of offering the services.

Power said the Tax Collector currently engages in about 150,000 transactions annually. With the addition of the driver license services, he expects an additional 50,000 transaction annually. He also estimates that providing the driver license service will cost about $400,000 annually, while the $6.25 per transaction fee would only bring in about $315,000 for the same time period. Still, Power said he believes legislators have taken other actions to shore up the funding in the coming years.

Logistically, Power said the Tax Collector has been planning for this transition for a long time. Office staff is being trained and cross trained to handle the new services, including becoming acquainted with documentation requirements and security issues related to driver licenses and identification cards.

“For several months, our staff has been going through training to accommodate this change and we hope it will be a smooth one for everyone involved.”

“We couldn’t be more excited,” said Fraser, “We'll be able to help people out at three locations now instead of just one. It’s a big win for the public. I'm ready to go.”

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L-R: Tamara Vaughn and High Springs Community School Band Director Vito Montauk performing a Christmas favorite.

HIGH SPRINGS – One of the most successful Music in the Park events ever took place on a recent Sunday at the James Paul Park behind High Springs City Hall.

On Dec. 16, approximately 116 members of the High Springs Community School Band, “The Hawks,” performed under the direction of Band Director Vito Montauk, to an estimated crowd of 300-400 people. According to Music in the Park organizer Michael Loveday, “The usual crowd is around 50.”

“One of the coolest things that happened,” said Loveday, “was that while The Hawks were playing, a real hawk appeared and flew over the area as the band played.”

In addition to The Hawks, “Cliff Dorsey performed and Tamara Vaughn delivered an amazing trumpet solo,” said Loveday.

The Christmas Extravaganza, which ran from 2-4 p.m., no doubt benefited from the ideal weather and the support of the High Springs Fire Department, which brought out their new fire truck, and the High Springs Police Department, which brought out their police cars. “This was a collaborative effort,” said Loveday.

Forest Grove Baptist Church provided hot dogs and hamburgers, Tropical Snow from Alachua brought their slushy snow cones, Vintage Fudge, the High Springs Chamber of Commerce and the New Century Woman’s Club provided food, snacks, and drinks.

Downtown stores stayed open to accommodate visitors to the downtown area.

The Music in the Park series is designed to bring the community together through music and to promote local musicians. It seems to have hit the mark with High Springs’ residents this past Sunday.

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ALACHUA COUNTY – The Alachua County Health Department (ACHD) is urging children and adults to get the seasonal flu vaccine and to take precautions to limit their risk of exposure to seasonal flu, an infection of the respiratory tract caused by the influenza virus. Compared with most other viral respiratory infections, such as the common cold, influenza infection often causes a more severe illness.

“The most effective precautions we can use to fight illness are getting vaccinated before flu season and practicing good hygiene regimes,” said Anthony Dennis, Environmental Health Director at ACHD. “With the holidays approaching, and many people traveling, these simple precautions may lessen your risk of exposure of the virus or transmission to others.”

Be sure to watch for symptoms of the flu, such as headache, fever, a severe cough, runny nose or body aches. Contact your primary care physician or a local hospital immediately if symptoms appear.

The Florida Department of Health urges the following preventive steps for the flu:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • If you are sick with flu–like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, without the use of fever-reducing medicine, except to get medical care or for other necessities.
  • Get re-vaccinated every year because flu viruses change each year.

The ACHD will be conducting three Flu Clinics at the Health Department, located at 224 SE 24th Street, Gainesville, on Dec. 27, Jan. 15 and Jan. 16 from 8:30 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. Alachua County school aged children can get the intra nasal FluMist® vaccine for free. Health Department clients can get the flu shot for free and non-clients can get the flu shot for $25. Many insurance plans cover the cost. For additional information call 352-334-7913.

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HIGH SPRINGS – The High Springs City Commission has appointed Larry Travis and Eyvonne Andrews to the city’s Plan Board. Leaving the board is last year’s chair, Jim Forrester, who did not seek reappointment and Joby Jett. The newly appointed members, whose terms expire in 2015, join last year’s vice chair, Gloria James, whose term expires in 2013, Donald Rou, whose term expires in 2014, and Robert “Bobby” Summers, whose term also expires in 2014. Each Plan Board member serves a three-year term.

The Board, which is scheduled to meet on the fourth Tuesday of each month, may choose to forego a meeting if there is no agenda item to be discussed. The Board did not meet during the last two months of 2012. The next scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, at 6:30 pm, is expected to take place to allow the Board to hold an organizational meeting to appoint a chair and vice chair for 2013. All Plan Board meetings are held in the High Springs City Commission Chambers.

The Plan Board is responsible for planning and development, overseeing the land development code, serving as the Historic Preservation Board, reviewing Comprehensive Plan and Sign Ordinance, as well as applications for Conditional Use Permits. The Board’s other duties are to review applications for variances, address zoning issues and reviewing the noise ordinance to make recommendations to the City Commission.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Recently hired High Springs City Manager Edwin Booth says the City’s sewer project is his number one issue as he neared completion of his first official week as High Springs’ new city manager.

“I have a meeting with the USDA on Jan. 7, 2013, to discuss the project with them, make sure the funding is still available, explain that the development we had hoped would come to High Springs has not and discuss the work that needs to be completed,” he said. “The City Commissioners have been part of this project for quite some time and are pretty well educated on the issues. I need to become more educated than they are.”

“I will be doing a lot of reading during the holidays regarding the City’s sewer project,” explained Booth, who said he wants to go back to the City Commission with his findings and suggestions “as soon as possible.”

“There is a lot of work to be done on this project,” explained Booth who said he will need to look at what engineering has been done and where the lines are located to get a clear picture of the system.

In response to the long list of items presented to Booth by the commission at the December meeting, Booth explained that he’s done all of it before.

“Every city manager has a million things on their plate. There is nothing they have asked for that is all that unusual,” he said noting that many of the items are long-term and cannot be resolved quickly. “I look forward to the challenge of working through those issues and going back to them with additional information and/or suggestions to resolve the issues that may have been hanging over them for some time.”

While Booth’s first official week on the job has concluded, he has been on-board “unofficially” for two previous weeks, overlapping with Interim City Manager Lee Vincent.

“This was a very smooth transition,” said Booth. Both Vincent and Booth have had similar military and city management experiences, which Booth said made for an easy transition. Vincent retired from the military after 26 years in the Navy and 13 years in city management positions. Booth retired from the military after 28 years in the Army and 30 years in city and community management positions with multi service organizations. Both achieved the rank of Commanding Officer. While Booth jokes that Vincent was not in the best branch of the military, it is obvious Booth has a great deal of respect for Vincent and the work he’s been able to do for the City during his tenure as interim city manager. “He would have made an excellent city manager for this town had he wanted to come out of retirement at this time,” said Booth.

Booth believes High Springs has a tremendous amount of potential. “Growth has been slowed down by the same economic conditions that all towns have been plagued with,” he said. Once the country gets past this protracted recession, Booth predicts the city will once again start moving forward to expansion. “The county is ready for that and we’re the lynchpin community to be able to support and provide housing for this county’s residents,” he said confidently.

“With available land, platted property, sewer and water in place, it will be just a matter of the right circumstances and the development will come,” he said.

One of Booth’s goals is to increase communication with the commission and the residents so there is a clear understanding about what is being done and why.

“I believe the people will have much more confidence in their town’s decisions once they understand why things are being done,” he said. “I realize there has been a lot of controversy in High Springs. As I read the newspapers, I realize some of that has been caused by miscommunication. I hope better communication will help eliminate some of the controversy in the future.”

Another area Booth has been tasked with is assuming the post of the Executive Director of the CRA. “Unless you are in a large city with a large tax base to support a paid executive director, the city manager almost always ends up in that role. It is customary for a town this size and once again, nothing unusual,” he said.

Booth said he already has a meeting set up with Carol Westmoreland of the League of Cities in Tallahassee. “The League of Cities runs the CRA,” he said. The CRA is due to expire in 2016 by state law. “There are possibly a few exceptions that may allow us to continue forward,” he said, “but not a lot. So we’re either going to have to start all over again, which requires support of the county or state or we can ask for an exception.” Noting that this issue is a couple of years away, he said he would recommend the City hold public hearings and get input from downtown business owners regarding where to go from here.

He also wants to hold a public hearing to get input from the citizens on the use of the old school house. That will not be likely to happen until after he and City Attorney Scott Walker review any stipulations that might have been imposed as part of the funding for the school renovation.

Booth explained, “Members of the public are the stakeholders here. We need to hear what they want before deciding anything. There is less dissention when ideas provided by the group are reviewed and evaluated as opposed to the City deciding on their own and then telling the public how they can use the building.”

As part of coming on board, Booth said he met with all the commissioners. “They are a great group,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for anybody who would put that much time and effort into the betterment of their community.”

“I treat all of the commissioners the same and don’t play politics,” he said. “I give every commissioner the same information so they can all make the best decisions possible.”

He repeated something he had said during his interview. “If the council makes a bad decision, I didn’t give them enough or the right information. When they make their decision, it becomes mine. I have to take it on and make it happen, so I want them to make the best decisions possible.”

Booth comes from a military family. His father was in the Army for 22 years and retired the year Booth went into the Army at the young age of 17. He now has three grown children, two girls and one boy, a grandson and granddaughter. While he is proud of them all and says so, he added that his son is carrying on the military tradition as a fighter pilot for the Air Force. “

Booth left the military for a time and became a police officer in Albuquerque, N.M. while attending college at the University of New Mexico. He went back into the military to fly helicopters and stayed for the remainder of his 28 years of service. He obtained a BS in Management from Columbia College, a MA in Public Administration/Management at Webster University and a MS in Military Science at the Command General Staff College, a military college.

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GAINESVILLE – Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, in an effort to enhance safety, has committed to placing Alachua County Sheriff’s Office deputies in 12 elementary schools in Alachua County. An agreement has been presented to the School Board of Alachua County that would place a deputy in each of the elementary schools listed below beginning with the return from the Christmas break on Jan. 3. Sheriff’s Office administration will be working with the School Board of Alachua County to determine additional coverage possibilities. This is a temporary measure as the joint work group meets to look into making schools safer. The unknown cost of this enhancement will be absorbed into the Sheriff’s current budget. No funding mechanism is in place to continue this long term by either the Sheriff or the School Board.

The presence of School Resource Deputies (SRD) in schools has become an important part of the duty to protect children on campus. The Sheriff’s Office currently has 16 deputies assigned to 14 schools in Alachua County. The presence of the SRD’s also provides a deterrent to those targeting young children around schools and an expedited law enforcement response to school violence or weapons.

The following additional schools will be staffed by a uniformed deputy beginning Jan. 3, 2013:

Alachua Elementary, Archer Elementary, Chiles Elementary, Hidden Oak Elementary, Idylwild Elementary, Irby Elementary, Lake Forrest Elementary, Meadowbrook Elementary, Newberry Elementary, Shell Elementary, Waldo Elementary and Wiles Elementary.

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